Vulnerable Times at the Chicago Convention

Originally published in the Fall 2013 MLA Newsletter

A few years ago, crisis was the key term describing the humanities and, specifically, humanities education in the academy. The summer of 2013 was full of talk about the humanities, but the term crisis did not dominate. We heard about “decline” in undergraduate majors and enrollments or, worse, “decline and fall,” and we saw numerous charts and graphs that supported and contested the drop in numbers. We read various narratives explaining the charts. Some argued that the shift in women’s career choices since the 1970s caused a drastic reduction in the number of English majors, but between 1970 and 1980 rather than now. Others blamed economic motives that sent students to majors with more secure employability, but they were quickly contradicted by business leaders who highlighted the valued skills that humanities majors bring to corporate work. Most troubling was that humanities professors were attacked for their inability to make a case for the importance of their areas of study as well as for their persistence in teaching traditional works with no current relevance and, conversely, for their teaching of “race, class, gender” and popular media rather than age-old values like “beauty and truth.”

If crisis talk has waned, it may be owing to two major reports on the state of the humanities, published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Heart) and Harvard University (“Teaching”), and their practical analyses and suggestions. It may be that crisis talk just has not been productive. Has the humanities ever been stable and well supported? Crisis presumes an immediacy that obscures the persistent vulnerability of our disciplines in a higher education system that is subject to unstable private and public funding sources. If it is true that the number of humanities majors (however defined) has held fairly steady at seventeen percent of all majors between 1970 and 2010, then we are not on the precipice of destruction right now, at least not on that front (Bérubé). But we still need to ask ourselves whether seventeen is an adequate percentage and how we might, independent of enrollment figures, envision the future of the humanities and the arts in a rapidly shifting political climate that seems to propel us from crisis to crisis, encouraging us to forget previous urgencies as we react to new ones. It is my hope that the focus on vulnerability that I have invited during the 2014 convention will spur a long-range approach and more creative and sustainable solutions than the alarmist talk of crisis.

There will be ample opportunity during the 2014 convention to discuss the questions raised in these reports and their press coverage and, indeed, to practice some of their recommendations for establishing broader coalitions among humanists inside and outside the academy. The convention will be preceded on the morning of 9 January by the Chicago Humanities Summit, cosponsored by the MLA, the Chicago Humanities Festival, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and planned in response to the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences report, The Heart of the Matter. The summit, comprising members of the commission, local humanities leaders, and academic humanists, will discuss strategies and practices designed to help anchor the humanities in the larger public sphere. I hope that MLA members will tailor their travel plans so that they can participate in this promising event. At this convention, the MLA will bestow its Phyllis Franklin Award for Public Advocacy of the Humanities to the filmmaker and writer John Sayles. Ambitious roundtables on MOOCs and on the Common Core standards in K–12 education are planned for the convention, as are open hearings on the revision of the MLA’s fundamental structures of knowledge, the divisions and discussion groups. In conjunction with “The Presidential Forum: Vulnerable Times,” the roundtable “Public Humanities” will probe the notion of the public, discussing institutions such as local humanities councils, museums, archives, libraries, festivals, theater, poetry jams, and prisons. Participants will also debate the role of university humanities centers and associations like the MLA in connecting students and faculty members in the academy with their communities.

As this particular roundtable suggests, the presidential theme Vulnerable Times is meant to advance both trenchant analyses of recurring vulnerabilities and susceptibilities to injury in the past and specific strategies for confronting the present and the future. The theme engages broad questions that reach well beyond the professional concerns of the humanities in our time. Distinguishing between the vulnerabilities we share as species living in bodies and in time and socially and politically produced vulnerabilities that are differentially imposed and thus subject to resistance and change, the theme invites historical analyses of how different periods and different cultures define their vulnerabilities and envision their futures. The sessions associated with Vulnerable Times promise to illuminate how the textual, historical, theoretical, and activist work we do as teachers of languages and literatures has been and can be mobilized to address social and political problems, whether urgent and immediate or persistent and recurring. They promise to engage the aesthetic as a space of vulnerability and as a practice that engages in resistance.

With this aim, the Presidential Forum will theorize vulnerability’s complex temporalities. Discussing embodiment, poverty, climate, activism, reparation, and the condition of being unequally governed, forum participants will expose key sites of vulnerability and assess possibilities for change. Two additional linked sessions will expand this dual approach to vulnerability: “The Politics of Language in Vulnerable Times” will look specifically at the effects of globalization and its promotion of English and at migration, minoritization, and troubling new language pedagogies; “Trauma, Memory, Vulnerability” will examine the new constellations brought to trauma and memory studies by the focus on vulnerability and its orientation toward the future as well as the past.

In defining the theme, it was my expectation that the network of Vulnerable Times sessions would spawn an extended conversation that engages different historical periods as well as different literatures and disciplinary and interdisciplinary directions. Indeed, the more than 200 sessions connected to the presidential theme range across every possible field and MLA group.

Of course, none of us can attend more than a small fraction of these events, in addition to participating in job interviews, seeing friends, and enjoying the pleasures of Chicago. In the spirit of the openness and connectivity associated with vulnerability, however, I want to urge you to attend at least one session that is entirely outside your area of expertise. I encourage you to use this convention to engage both intellectual and professional questions from as broad a vantage point as possible so that, together, we can respond to our vulnerabilities actively and creatively, without succumbing to debilitating crisis mentalities.

Works Cited

Bérubé, Michael. “The Humanities, Declining? Not according to the Numbers.” Chronicle Review. Chronicle of Higher Educ., 1 July 2013. Web. 22 Aug. 2013.

The Heart of the Matter. American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, Amer. Acad. of Arts and Sciences, 2013. Web. 22 Aug. 2013.

“The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future.” The Humanities Project. Harvard U, 2012–13. Web. 22 Aug. 2013.